Francis Bacon/Henry Moore: Flesh and Bone

It is inspiring to pair together the great post-war painter Francis Bacon with the grand titan of sculpture Henry Moore. Or should we say to confront? Both are, seemingly, a galaxy away from one another, the former famous for his brutally macabre portraits and the latter best known for his quietly amorphous constructs.
If anything can be identified in the immediate it is that they were both fond of the semi-abstract intersection of flesh and bone, and the endless possibility of dreams, their muse an ephemeral – but altogether real – figure.
Yet, as the daring Ashmolean Museum evidently understands in its new exhibition, these two inspiring and original artists share quite a lot in terms of their ‘treatment of the human figure’ and the horrific violence of the twentieth century (Moore was born in 1898 and Bacon 1909).
They were both vanguards in their preoccupation with our physical being, continuing for example, to produce quasi-figurative art when it was vogue to execute explosive abstract works.
As Richard Calvocoressi, co-curator and director of the Henry Moore Foundation notes, although they were not part of the new polemic, they were still breaking new ground in their own way.
By continuing to reinvent the human body, they continued with tradition and simultaneously rejected it. For Moore, the eternal optimist, humanism would be triumphant, while for Bacon, a perennial cynic, nihilism would always be a constant in history.
“What we are asked to contemplate are two kinds of artists, visibly so different, yet linked in so many ways,” considers the art critic and curator Marina Vaizey in an article for the Guardian.
“Neither was religious, yet Christian imagery is quarried for their art. What they have in common is an obsession with the human condition, perhaps more individual on the part of Bacon and more generalised on the part of Moore, and extraordinary international achievement, both worldly and aesthetic.”
Inevitably, we have to (redundantly) ask, who is the better artist? The most diplomatic and correct answer is both in their own discipline and although we can say with certainty that some artists have better things to say, for this exhibition it isn’t the correct approach. It isn’t a competition.
The reason for such a show is to extrapolate new insight. Not just into art or of both artists, but of the human condition. Mr Calvocoressi said that the idea for this show goes back to the 1970s when he was a student. He attended a lecture by Francis Warner, a fellow and tutor in English Literature at St. Peter’s College.
The subject being discussed was Moore and Bacon, with Mr Warner postulating that both artists were, as remembered by Mr Calvocoressi, “engaged in a similar enterprise: restoring the human body, not to a state of perfection or even wholeness, but to a kind of dignified, animal resignation in the face of isolation and suffering”.
Flesh and Bone is a seismic show that leaves you breathless and lost in thought. You will ask new questions about Moore and Bacon, as individuals, as contemporaries and as human beings. Together, their concept of body and soul, makes a fitting whole. Existence is a very human affair.
Francis Bacon/Henry Moore: Flesh and Bone at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford runs until January 19th 2013.
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